The importance of the Arabic language should not be understated. It is spoken by an estimated 422 million people worldwide, with 26 countries, from Africa to the Middle East, claiming it as their official language — making it sixth in the world's most commonly spoken languages after English, Mandarin Chinese, Hindi, Spanish and French.
It is often considered challenging for native speakers of European languages such as French, Spanish, German, and Portuguese to learn Arabic.
This might be because it has three vowels, with the vowel length distinguishing the word meaning. Or that it has a wide range of consonants produced at the back of the throat, with each consonant being voice or unvoiced. Perhaps it is down to the fact that, as in other Semitic languages, such as Hebrew, the word order is verb-subject-object.
One particularly challenging aspect of learning Arabic is that there are many different versions. The written language consists mainly of Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) and Classic Arabic. Luckily, the difference between the two is largely not important. Msa is used in written texts for an international market, such as newspapers and books. Classical Arabic is the form of Arabic used in the Islamic holy book of the Quran, making the Arabic language significant in the Muslim world.
The story for spoken Arabic is somewhat different. Each country has its own dialect. This means that there are large differences in vocabulary, phrases, expressions, pronunciation and sometimes even grammatical structure. In other words, Egyptian Arabic differs from Moroccan Arabic, which in turn differs from Lebanese Arabic and Palestinian Arabic.
As you can see, there are many things that you need to know about Arabic. But the one thing that all of this has in common is that each version of Arabic has its foundations in Arabic script. So if you want to learn Arabic to do business in Qatar, to go on holiday in the United Arab Emirates or even to study the Quran in Saudi Arabia, you'll need to start off with the Arabic alphabet.
As with many script languages, the Arabic alphabet can be intimidating at first glance, if only because the writing appears indecipherable to newcomers. But it's possible to learn the 28 letters of the Arabic alphabet in only a few months of studying.
Learn all about how to learn Arabic letters without taking a traditional lesson.
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Arabic in the Australian Curriculum
Many people believe that languages are most easily learned if you start young. Whether or not this is actually true remains a subject of debate, however, what is known is that children learn languages differently from adults — which may account for the perceived ease. Indeed, Emeritus Professor Stephen Krashen's theory of second language acquisition makes sense when he says that children acquire language, while adults learn languages — marking the distinction between the child accepting and understanding languages through speaking and listening, while adults consciously learn about languages through grammar rules, writing and vocabulary lessons.
Languages have always had a bit of a stop-start, almost half-hearted place in Australian schools. My mother recalls that, when she was a student back in the 1950s, she was forced to learn German, French and Latin. The teaching style was different then — lessons came from a reading and writing focus, with little speaking required. In fact, she remembers little more than Wie viel Uhr ist es? (What is the time?)
Up until the early 2000s, each state and territory in Australia was responsible for their own curriculum — a slight issue when students, or teachers, moved interstate. When the decision was made to bring all Australian states in line (rather than having eight separate curricula) and the new Australia-wide curriculum was launched in 2009, languages featured as one of the mandatory subjects and Arabic was listed as one of the 16 recommended languages, which also included Chinese, Latin, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages, Auslan, Modern Greek, Vietnamese and French.
The curriculum guidelines recommend exposure to and familiarisation with the Arabic alphabet — its sounds, script, symbols and writing form or style — from the first years of primary school. As students progress, there continues to be a rounded focus on all skills — speaking, listing, writing, reading — and cultural literacy, along with concepts such as globalisation, communication and technology.
With over 1.4% of people living in Australia identifying themselves as speakers of Arabic, the number of schools that specialise in Arabic has risen over the last couple of decades. These schools are fully accredited by the relevant state's education board and are mandated to teach the Australian Curriculum in the same way as other schools must do. The main difference is that a considerable portion of the curriculum is accessed by students in Arabic, and other subject areas are accessed in English. Most Arabic specialist schools cater for students from the first year of primary school through until Year 10, and many are open to enrolments from native and non-native Arabic speakers.
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An Introduction to the Letters of the Arabic Alphabet
The History of the Arabic Language
Arabic descended from a language known as Proto-Semitic. Originating from the Arabian Peninsula, with the expansion of the Muslim world it quickly spread into North Africa and Western Asia. As the language spread and grew, various dialects developed, although MSA is the official language of the Arab world and is used in educational documents as well as for communication between Arabic-speaking nations. Out of the 26 countries with Arabic as their official language, including Israel (coupled with Hebrew), Tunisia, UAE and Algeria, Egyptian Arabic is considered the most widely understood of all the dialects because of their role as major producers of movies and television shows.
Many languages have been influenced by Arabic and contain a number of loan words, including European languages and the languages of Africa and Asia. In English, we also have a number of words of Arabic origin — zero, algebra, cotton, guitar, lemon, magazine and sugar, to name but a few.
These days, Arabic script is also often used for decorative purposes throughout the Muslim world because of its stylised form and flowing writing style.
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The Origins of the Arabic Alphabet
Heavily influenced by the Aramaic alphabet, written Arabic (in this context, we mean literary Arabic rather than the spoken form or Arabic dialects) appeared for the first time in 512 CE in Syria. In terms of the history of world languages, particularly those that are still in use, written Arabic is relatively recent — especially when you consider languages like Tamil (believed to have originated in written form in 2500 BCE), Sanskrit (2000 BCE), Greek (1500 BCE), Chinese (1250 BCE), Hebrew (1000 BCE) and Latin (75 BCE). The Arabic language had already existed in spoken form for several centuries and was steadily attracting new speakers. Little by little, the language became more important and overtook Aramaic, the last traces of which faded in the 4th century.
The alphabet, however, was quickly deemed too simple, not accounting for the many unique features of spoken Arabic. So, even though written Arabic doesn't generally use diacritical marks (accents), Arabic writers at the time adopted the dot and the hamza. Furthermore, the original 22 letters of the Arabic alphabet became 28 letters through the course of natural evolutionary processes in the language. In the 8th century, Arabic grammarians reorganized the alphabet of the language to facilitate study of it.
Thanks to the advent of Islam and the circulation of Arabic-language Qurans, the Arabic alphabet became a necessity for the people of North Africa. Even today, translating the Quran poses problems for linguists, who feel that the true meanings of the words can only be understood in Arabic. The Arabic alphabet is thus an indispensable tool in terms of getting to know Arab culture and understanding the history of the Arab world.
The Characteristics of the Arabic Alphabet
Technically, the Arabic alphabet is considered to be an abjad. An abjad is a writing style or script that uses symbols for consonants only, meaning that readers of materials written in adjad must infer the word meaning and pronunciation by supplying an appropriate vowel. Because Arabic later came to use ways, such as vowel diacritics, to indicate vowel sounds, it is now considered to be an impure adjad. Likewise, the Hebrew alphabet is also an impure abjad. Apart from Arabic and Hebrew, Urdu and Persian alphabets are also abjad.
Mastering Arabic script may take some effort. Although the Arabic alphabet today only contains 28 official letters, excluding the hamza, it has many differences to English. Compared to Western languages, Arabic is a unicameral language in which upper and lower-case letters do not exist. It can thus be somewhat difficult for a beginner with the Arabic language to determine the beginning and end of sentences in an Arabic text.
Arabic writing is done from right to left, which might be unusual for you, but it is done top to bottom, like most languages from around the world.
Each Arabic letter also has three variants: the structures of letters vary according to their place in a word. So, there is:
- a written form of the letter on its own
- a written form of the letter at the beginning of a word
- a written form of the letter in the middle of a word
- a written form of the letter at the end of a word.
In this way, a 28-letter alphabet quickly becomes an alphabet of 112 letters!
To master the Arabic alphabet, you need to take all of these variations into account or risk not being able to recognise a letter as you read in Arabic.
Additionally, in their isolated written form, 18 letters are similar to each other:
- ع and غ
- ب , ت, and ث
- ج , ح, and خ
- د and ذ
- ر and ز
- س and ش
- ص and ض
- ط and ظ
Here, only the dots change (pay attention to the number of dots). Thus, it's not the writing of the letters themselves that's complex but memorising all the different forms.
When you learn Arabic, you will spend many hours practising your Arabic letters.
How to Form Words in Arabic
As with other Semitic languages, such as Hebrew, words are constructed in Arabic from a basic root. For example, the consonant symbols for 'k', 't' and 'b' form the foundation of all words associated with writing, such as 'kitaab' (book) and 'maktab' (desk). This root-based style of writing, until you're used to it, can mean that individual vocabulary can be difficult to translate and may need to appear in a number of sentences before the meaning becomes clear. Many believe this style enhances the poetic beauty of the language.
Installing an Arabic Keyboard on Your Computer
In the 21st century, most students of a foreign language learn on their computers.
Students of Chinese, Japanese or Korean (who use a kanji character-based written style), or any abjad style writing system, such as Arabic, however, might think it's impossible to write their second language on an electronic device due to the alphabets being different from the Latin one that we use in English and see on most keyboards.
But they're wrong!
To avoid having to copy and paste in order to include the Arabic alphabet on your machine, nothing is easier: there's software devoted especially to this.
First, if you make the decision to review your studies in Word, all you need to do is change the document's language settings from the tool menu. You'll have the choice between traditional Arabic, simplified Arabic (in which punctuation and vocalisation cues are absent), and even typeset Arabic.
To work in OpenOffice in Arabic, users need to go into Preferences, then Language Rules, then Languages, and finally to Complex Scripts to choose the Arabic language. It's also important to regulate the alignment since Arabic writing goes from right to left.
To get an Arabic keyboard directly on your machine, the software solutions are:
- On a computer: Arabic Keyboard for Windows, Arabic Keyboard for Apple IOS, Arabic Keyboard Typing Tutor, Virtual Keyboard, and many others.
- On a smartphone or tablet: IQQI Arabic Keyboard, GO Keyboard in Arabic, GBoard, etc.
There are even Arabic keyboards online that you can use.
With these helpful tools, it's possible to go over the Arabic alphabet directly on your computer to write Arabic words and Arabic phrases, and to make files so you can study your notes as you need to.
Pronouncing the Letters
To learn the Arabic alphabet, it's equally important to never forget about oral expression!
Arabic letters can seem so different to our Roman alphabet that they can quickly seem indecipherable. That's why learning the phonetics of the symbols helps you better memorise the alphabet.
There's no point in trying to find similarities between our Western languages and the Arabic language. Arabic has its own unique sound characteristics that can't compare to ours. Indeed, some of the sounds in Arabic are not found in other languages. For example, ‘ح’ is an ‘h’ sound that is only found in Arabic.
To learn and know the Arabic alphabet by heart, it's better to practise reading and re-reading Arabic signs aloud, to develop a sort of melody, since it's easier than normal reading.
Learning Arabic will require developing certain linguistic competencies:
- Hearing: knowing how to listen effectively enables students to memorise the proper pronunciation as it's used by a native speaker. Educational websites or apps that focus on Arabic enable you to listen to words and letters of the Arabic alphabet.
- Arabic accent: reading the letters isn't enough, students need to learn to correctly pronounce each letter of the Arabic alphabet. To do this, students need to study the tonal qualities of the letters to place them within the context of the language and assimilate them when speaking Arabic.
- Writing: as with Mandarin Chinese, written Arabic has its own rules. The type of writing recommended by linguists allows you to avoid confusing the numerous letters and accelerates the memorisation process. To see and reproduce the lettering correctly, students can watch instructional videos online.
To know if your pronunciation is correct, Arabic students can download smartphone applications that help with Arabic oral skills and with eliminating all traces of your English accent.
Before getting started learning the Arabic alphabet, it's recommended that students classify the letters into precise groups, to help learn them in a logical sense.
For example, students can choose to arrange the letters into the following categories:
- variable and non-variable letters
- letters that are pronounced gently, and those that are pronounced more emphatically
- letters that attach from the right and left side, and those that attach from the right, but not to the left.
By making accurate and concise notes about these letter groups, Arabic students can more easily memorise the Arabic alphabet in less than a month.
Memorise the Arabic Alphabet Through Regular Practice
As you learn any foreign language, one common point of stress applies to all of them: regular practice.
It's useless to rush into learning only to forget within a few months. Some linguistic researchers have even developed a system of spaced repetition that's based on the forgetting curve: a student reviews a point or a word just before they're about to forget. This system enables students to learn Arabic letters at a rate of 10 to 15 per day and to remember them more effectively over the long term.
To learn according to educational best practices, nothing is more important than working through everything with expert educators of that language. Student progress will be monitored and memorisation of the Arabic alphabet and its practical application will be made easier through the teacher's various exercises.
To internalise the Arabic alphabet, students can buy a variety of specialised manuals aimed at helping English speakers:
- The Arabic Alphabet: How to Read & Write It, by Nicholas Awde
- Write It in Arabic: A Workbook and Step-by-Step Guide to Writing the Arabic Alphabet, by Naglaa Ghali
- Sugar Comes from Arabic: A Beginner's Guide to Arabic Letters and Words, by Barbara Whitesides
- Modern Standard Arabic Grammar: A Learner's Guide, by Mohammad T. Alhawary
To review and practice on the go, some students of Arabic make the decision to download free educational apps, for Android or IOS.
Exercises offered on Smartphones have, more than any other medium, a fun and convenient approach appropriate for young students who need to have a good time while they learn.
There are also Arabic alphabet puzzles, board games, and word-search games to help children learn the Arabic language. These educational games are available everywhere online, but also in toy stores and bookstores.
By regularly practising Arabic language skills and putting forth some effort, you can definitely learn the Arabic alphabet, in just a few months.
By learning Arabic online, you will also pick up these basic skills. A quick Google search will put you in touch with numerous online courses, tutors and educational apps — there will be something there to suit your learning style and your needs.
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